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The meaning of the U.S. midterm election results

November 8, 2010

For Republican politicians and the corporate media, the U.S. midterm election results are supposedly evidence of “a massive conservative trend sweeping the nation.”1 Proclaiming the victory of his party on election night, top House Republican John Boehner declared that “the American people have sent President Barack Obama a message through the ballot box to change course” – and he was not calling on Obama to steer further to the left.

There has clearly been a significant decline in public support for Obama. However, there is no massive conservative trend in national opinion. The real picture is more uncertain and more complex.

The majority did not vote

One point will suffice to deflate the overblown rhetoric. The American people have sent no one a message through the ballot box to do anything, for the simple reason that the majority of the American people – 58.5%, to be more precise – did not vote.

Well, nothing unusual about that. Voter turnout in the United States is low. In fact, a turnout of 41.5% is rather above average for midterm elections: it usually lies between 30% and 40%. Turnout in presidential elections, and in congressional elections held in the same year as presidential elections, is considerably higher, in the 50—60% range, though this is still low by international standards. In the 2008 congressional elections 57% voted.2

How likely people are to vote depends heavily on such factors as age and income. People with higher incomes are more likely to vote than the poor, while the elderly are more likely to vote than those of working age. Moreover, these differences are especially wide when overall turnout is very low. People with higher incomes and the elderly vote disproportionately for the Republicans. That is why the Republicans tend to do better in midterm elections than in presidential election years, even when there is no real shift in public opinion.

In the November elections Republican candidates won 54% of the total vote. It is equally true to say, taking turnout into account, that slightly over a fifth of Americans (22%) voted for Republicans and slightly under a fifth (19%) for Democrats. This hardly represents a groundswell in public support for the Republicans. Due to the way the electoral system works, the votes of just 3% of citizens made all the difference between a Democratic and a Republican landslide. It is also striking that a lower proportion of Americans voted Republican in 2010 than in 2008 (25%).

“Progressive” Democrats did well

The “tea party” movement has swept many new Christian fundamentalist and other extremist Republicans into Congress. This would seem to support the thesis of a massive conservative trend. At the same time, however, there has been a marked shift in the composition of congressional Democrats that points in a different direction.

The Democrats in Congress are divided into several groups. To simplify matters, let us compare the relative positions of the groups furthest to the “right” and “left”—the “Blue Dogs” and the Progressive Caucus. The elections have reduced the number of Blue Dogs in the House of Representatives by over half, from 54 to 26. In contrast, the number of “progressive” Democrats has fallen only slightly, from 79 to 75. As a proportion of all Democrats in the House, the Blue Dogs have fallen from 22% to 14% while the progressives have risen from 32% to 40%.3

So while the Democrats as a whole suffered a major setback in the elections, many if not all “progressive” Democrats did quite well. To take one important example, although the Democratic Party lost its traditional hold on the once industrial but now largely deindustrialized Midwest, with dozens of incumbent Democrats losing their seats, in Ohio’s 10th Congressional District the “progressive” former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich defeated his Republican opponent by the safe margin of 53% to 44%. By distancing themselves from Obama, many “progressive” Democrats were apparently able to capture a share of the protest vote of Americans who had backed Obama in the presidential elections but were now disappointed in him.

The electoral successes of “progressive” Democrats give socialists some grounds for hope. That is not because the “progressives” are socialists or even close to being socialists: their reform program basically aims to make the U.S. more competitive in the context of world capitalism, whose continued existence it assumes. Nevertheless, they have shown that it is possible to withstand the hostility of the corporate media and find other ways to establish and maintain contact with ordinary people. If they can do it, socialists can too.

Breakup of the two-party system?

Thus, the trend revealed by the election results is not clearly conservative in nature. The change in the relative strength of the Democratic and Republican Parties is less significant than it appears. But there has been a further strengthening in the position of the extreme “right” within the Republican Party and of the “extreme left” (by the standards of U.S. politics) within the Democratic Party. In other words, American public opinion is undergoing a process of polarization.

This raises the question of the future shape of the American party system. The two-party system is deeply entrenched, but under extreme stress its breakup is surely conceivable. Both the Democratic and the Republican Party are now more deeply divided than ever before. Should one or both of them split apart over the next few years, the result could be a more varied and changeable political landscape with three, four, or even more large national parties.4 The political process might then no longer be under such tight corporate control, placing socialists in a somewhat less constraining political environment.

Notes

1. Reese Erlich, http://therealnews.com/t2
2. Figures taken from the site http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm
3. http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/4/as_right_leaning_blue_dogs_lose
4. See the speculations of the activist film maker Michael Moore at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/3/exclusive_filmmaker_michael_moore_on_midterm

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